Does science understand compassion meditation?

Compassion may be the most beneficial of all meditation techniques, but scientists have to work harder to understand it

Compassion meditation.
Compassion? – Photo by bin Ziegler on Pexels.com

In preparation for some upcoming blog articles, including looking at the Luberto et al. meta-review of compassion meditation research, I wanted to talk about terminology and concepts in this field.1 While science is a powerful system for measuring and predicting nature, it has problems in understanding and thus evaluating complex human behaviours such as compassion. But these challenges are made harder by imprecision and generalisations. For example, scientific reviews frequently combine or aggregate the findings from compassion, empathy, and loving-kindness studies. Cognitively speaking, these practices draw on related but different processes. Empathy, identifying with the experiences of others, is quite different from compassion, seeking to alleviate the suffering of others. If scientists compare the effects of belief-based versions of these practices, it becomes even more problematic. Even within Buddhism, the major schools have distinct ontological perspectives, which makes the operational deployment of their meditation methods quite different.

While the psychological sciences can observe almost any human behaviour, including meditation, the problems arise when attempting to understand what takes place, particularly in methods, like Buddhist meditation, developed in non-positivist environments. So while it’s relatively simple for scientists to measure the before and after effects of one form of meditation, understanding what the meditators are doing is more challenging. And aggregating the impact of different forms of compassion meditation seems likely to deliver unreliable data. These problems become even greater when empathy, metta, loving-kindness and self-compassion practices are thrown into the mix.

Understanding the concept of compassion as an object of scientific inquiry is preliminary; we don’t yet have comprehensive knowledge of trait and state compassion or how to measure them reliably. Added to this challenge, concepts of compassion are culturally embedded and can be incredibly complex to unravel. Simply moving a compassionate activity from a church or temple into a laboratory may change the psychological impact of the practice. As described in the scholarly literature, removing mindfulness from its religio-cultural contexts changed its nature.2 This doesn’t mean that medicalised mindfulness is not a useful intervention, simply that it does not reliably reflect the mental training present in the dozen or so known spiritual mindfulness practices.

Let’s look at the complexity of understanding compassion meditation in Buddhist traditions. First, we have to consider there are three main Buddhist schools or vehicles, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, each has a different world view. These particular world views lead to operational differences in how the concept of compassion is integrated into meditation methods. Furthermore, multiple schools exist within the three ‘vehicles’, each of which may have a degree of uniqueness in their compassion practices. At this stage, it’s probably better not to discuss the role of non-dual compassion as there is almost nothing replicated in the scientific literature about this element of human consciousness (although we all access it every day).

So the take-home message here is how well we define compassion will inevitably be linked to our ability to harness meditation practices’ health and well-being benefits.

Notes:

  1. Luberto, Christina M., Nina Shinday, Rhayun Song, Lisa L. Philpotts, Elyse R. Park, Gregory L. Fricchione, and Gloria Y. Yeh. “A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and prosocial behaviors.” Mindfulness 9, no. 3 (2018): 708-724.
  2. King, Richard. “‘Paying attention’in a digital economy: reflections on the role of analysis and judgement within contemporary discourses of mindfulness and comparisons with classical Buddhist accounts of sati.” In Handbook of Mindfulness, pp. 27-45. Springer, Cham, 2016.

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

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